August 15, 2018 at 3:49 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
Leah Vukmir emerges as Tammy Baldwin’s opponent

Wisconsin state Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Milwaukee County) is Tammy Baldwin’s opponent in the 2018 election. (Photo public domain)

When the smoke of the Wisconsin primary cleared on Tuesday night, one thing became clear: The opponent of Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) in November will be State Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Milwaukee County).

In a primary with the Steve Bannon-backed Kevin Nicholson, Vukmir — the established candidate backed by the state Republican Party machine — won a plurality of 49 percent of the vote compared to the 42 percent Nicholson won.

If Vukmir succeeds in the general election against Baldwin — an outcome that would defy polls, but not impossible amid considerable Koch brother spending in the race — the Republican will have succeeded in ousting a longtime champion of LGBT rights and the first openly gay person elected the U.S. Senate.

Cast by LGBT rights groups as an anti-LGBTQ extremist, Vukmir has a history of votes in nearly 16 years in office in the Wisconsin legislature against LGBT rights.

Top among them is her opposition to a measure against anti-LGBT bullying added to an education omnibus bill in 2010.

According to an article at the time from the progressive Wisconsin Gazette, Vukmir voted against the measure in committee and on the floor one day for the National Day of Silence, a student-initiated annual event that seeks to bring attention to anti-LGBT harassment in schools.

The Wisconsin Gazette reported prior to the votes in an email exchange on Feb. 12, 2010, Vukmir consulted with the Wisconsin Family Council, an anti-LGBT group, in seeking to defeat the measure.

After telling Vukmir the anti-bullying measure is “dangerous” and “promoted by the pro-gay group GLSEN and others,” Julaine Appling, head of the Wisconsin Family Council, gave Vukmir “alternative language” for the measure. Vukmir told the anti-LGBT group she was “open to your suggestions.”

According to a 2006 report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Vukmir supported a constitutional amendment on the ballot approved 59 percent by voters that banned same-sex marriage in the state. The U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals later overturned the measure as unconstitutional.

Unlike other politicians who evolved on the issue, Vukmir has never articulated support for same-sex marriage. In fact, in 2014, Vukmir voted against a resolution to remove from the books the state provision that only marriages of one man and one woman be recognized, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, Vukmir has also declined to co-sponsor pro-LGBT bills, including a measure barring widely discredited “ex-gay” conversion therapy for youth, a measure to add gender as a protected class to the state hate crimes law and and a bill to allow same-sex couples to file a joint state tax return in same way that permitted for different-sex couples.

Wendy Strout, Wisconsin state director for the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement after the primary the Human Rights Campaign is ready to help Baldwin defeat Vukmir.

“The choice for fair-minded Wisconsinites couldn’t be clearer this November,” Strout said. “We can either support pro-equality champions like Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who have spent their careers fighting to ensure that every Wisconsinite can live a life free from discrimination and harassment, or side with anti-equality candidates like Leah Vukmir who, time and time again, has worked to undermine equality for the LGBTQ community.”

But there’s no record of Vukmir publicly ranting about LGBT rights or disparaging LGBT people like other Republican candidates for U.S. Senate. Among them is Roy Moore, who urged Alabama to ignore the U.S. Supreme Court for same-sex marriage and last year lost his special election in that state.

Among those heaping praise on Vukmir is President Trump, who on the morning after the primary congratulated the Republican on Twitter. Without naming Baldwin, Trump ridiculed the lesbian senator for having “done very little” despite her record for LGBT rights and distinction of being the first openly gay person elected to Congress.

“Congratulations to Leah Vukmir of Wisconsin on your great win last night,” Trump tweeted. “You beat a very tough and good competitor and will make a fantastic Senator after winning in November against someone who has done very little. You have my complete and total Endorsement!”

Polls are good for Baldwin. A NBC News/Marist poll published in July found Baldwin leading Vukmir by 55-38 with 6 percent undecided. Another Public Policy Poll last month had Baldwin leading Vukmir by 51-39 with 10 percent undecided.

Baldwin also has a financial advantage in terms of non-Super PAC money. According to OpenSecrets.org, Baldwin has raised $22,616,357, spent $16,087,381 and has $6,705,676 in cash on hand going into the general election. In contrast, Vukmir has raised $2,002,657, spent $1,573,068 over the course of her primary and has $429,590 in cash on hand.

But Koch brother-backed Super PACs have spent millions in the race for negative ads on Baldwin even before the primary. Now that establishment Republican has won the primary, that spending is likely to continue as well as the vicious campaign ads.

Moreover, progressive candidate Russ Feingold in 2016 had the same lead over Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) at this point in time, but ended up losing to the Republican in November.

Nathan Gonzales, editor of the D.C.-based Inside Elections, said Baldwin “starts the general election with an advantage” and hedged on whether Republican groups will still see the Wisconsin race as a pickup opportunity.

“I think Republicans outside of Wisconsin will take a fresh look at the race and decide whether it’s worth a big financial investment,” Gonzales said. “Wisconsin is technically a Trump state, but we’re not talking about West Virginia or North Dakota here. Republicans were also banking on a big win from Gov. Walker to boost the entire ticket, but that isn’t a given anymore.”

Annise Parker, CEO of LGBTQ Victory Fund, in a statement predicted victory for Baldwin in November, contrasting her record to that of Vukmir’s on LGBT rights.

“Leah Vukmir built her career on opposing basic equality for LGBTQ Americans and considers designated hate groups among her closest supporters,” Parker said. “Wisconsin voters have a proud history of electing and reelecting groundbreaking LGBTQ candidates like Sen. Baldwin, and we are confident they will reject Vukmir’s hostile agenda come November.”

The Vukmir campaign didn’t respond to the Washington Blade’s request to comment Wednesday.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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